Earlier this month Drew Olds of Garden Ninja Painting was kind enough to field a series of questions about his experience as a gamer and a professional painter. Since Drew is the talent behind my Praetorian army I thought that the readers of this blog would be interested in reading about painting from his perspective. As a long time commissioner of paint work I have always been fascinated by those brave souls who pick up a paintbrush for hire. It is a skill that I admire mainly because I lack the ability to paint quickly and become too attached to my mediocre works to ever part with them (not that too many offers have been made). It is because of great talents like Drew that I am able to field fully painted armies and enjoy the hobby of miniature war gaming. Honestly I don't know if I would be as dedicated to collecting and playing with miniatures if it weren't for commission painters breathing life into the bare plastic and metal models. So, I tip my virtual hat to Drew and the other men and women who so graciously add color to the hobby for those of us who cannot, or will not, do it themselves.
- How long have you been gaming and what was your “gateway” game that started you down the tabletop/rpg path?
I started out with Space Crusade. That should date me pretty far back. For those of you who aren't familiar, it was a joint project between Games Workshop and Milton Bradley featuring marines fighting against "Chaos Forces" which consisted of Chaos Marines, Chaos Orks, Chaos Gretchin, Chaos Genestealers and Chaos Android that looks a lot like a Necron.
About the same time I got the boxed edition of Dungeons and Dragons- the non-advanced version where the core classes included magic user, elf and dwarf.
Photo By: Janci Patterson
- Is there a game that you consider “your” game and that you find yourself unable to let go of (even if you no longer play it)?
I met my wife in an Iron Kingdoms RPG group, so I'm very fond of that system and setting. I'm hoping the new non-D20 version is a fantastic system. We'll see in August.
Now, if you asked my wife what her favorite game is, I'm pretty sure it would be Orpheus because that is how she was introduced to role playing and gaming in general. I was glad to see that one come back into print through Drive Through RPG recently.
- What do you enjoy playing right now?
Well, I've been playing a decent amount of Blood Bowl recently, mostly with a Vampire team. The game is one of the best simple and elegant rules sets I've played.
I also have been playing a little Malifaux (with a Ramos crew) and Warmachine under the banner of Magnus the traitor.
I have a Movie Space Marines force for 40k -if you know the rules, they're ridiculous. Oh, and there's Super Dungeon Explore and Space Hulk.
I'm also running a Pathfinder game right now with a "Dawn of Worlds" made setting.
So, I guess that's a lot.
- Are you an “FLGS” player or do you prefer to play at home?
Both. Now that we have a table and terrain at home, it is starting to make more sense to be lazy and stay here.
- Do you currently have a regular gaming group? If so how long have you been playing with that particular group?
Well, the group I have right now I've been playing with for about five or six years. We tend to have an RPG once a week, an occasional LAN party, and a number of them play tabletop games.
- Are there any new gaming related projects/studios that you have your eye on?
I'm also keeping my eye on Relic Knights- I played a demo at GenCon last year and it looked terrific. But Sodapop has had so much trouble keeping up with their Super Dungeon line that the Relic Knight stuff has been pushed back a little.
- How long have you been painting?
Well, it has been twenty-one years since I first put paint to a mini. I started out with some lead orks with plastic arms from my local game store and some Monster in My Pockets. The rubbery plastic of those monsters didn't actually take very well.
At first I was using any kind of paints we had around the house. I actually used some fabric markers to paint those poor orks.
- What was the impetus to start Garden Ninja Studios?
When I was in college, I was looking for a job that would work around my classes. I spoke with someone else who ran a painting studio, but he wanted me to sign a non-competition contract with him that would prevent me from ever working with anything miniatures related again for un undisclosed amount of time.
The contract wasn't legal (a few other guys took him to court over it about a year later) but I didn't want to get mixed up in that kind of a mess.
The thing was, I wasn't sure what I needed him and his contract for. So I started my own studio. I built it up while finishing classes, and by the time I graduated, Garden Ninja Studios was a full time career.
- Is Garden Ninja a full time enterprise or do you juggle another job as well?
This is my full time job. I schedule eight hours a day for painting commission projects.
- Based upon the ever expanding gallery on your site it seems that business is good. How did you set out to differentiate yourself from all of the competition on the internet?
The world of painting studios has a sort of binary to it. Most studios try to fit into either the low end scale where they'll get paint on the minis for very little, or the high end scale where they'll only paint single miniatures, but at stunningly high quality.
There are only a few that really do high quality work on army projects. That's really what I set out to do from the start. Since my schedule started being booked, I stopped taking lower quality projects altogether, and the result has been only more business coming my way.
- What has been the most difficult aspect of the paint commission business?
The schedule- definitely the schedule. As the business grew, I went from booking this week to booking months out. I've had to re-structure the way I schedule my time and projects a few times to keep my sanity. The current method hasn't had any major problems, though.
- Are there trends within the commission painting community that bother or worry you?
When I first started up, there were a few clients who contacted me and told me about how some other studio took their minis and then closed shop (keeping their money and minis). I was really bothered by this because you know for everyone who was burned and willing to try another service, there were ten people who were burned who would never try a painting service again.
- Have you borne witness to people disparaging the players/hobbyists who contract others to paint their figures? Any thoughts on why that seems to be a polarizing issue within certain circles of the gaming community?
I haven't seen it personally, although it shows up online.
To a lot of people, painting is as much a part of gaming as playing the game itself. I tend to spend longer painting a force than playing it, so I can see how that would work.
The thing is, there are two sides to gaming, and a lot of people want to play the games, and aren't as interested in investing the time it takes to get good at painting. And that's ok too.
I never try to discourage someone from painting miniatures themselves. I've seen some studios try to guard their methods like they were trade secrets, but I feel like if you want to paint your own force, more power to you. If you'd like me to paint it, I'd be happy to help.
- What is a typical work day like for you in the studio? How many hours a day/week do you dedicate to studio work?
I get to work around nine and start answering emails, updating my blog or posting to forums. By ten, I'll be at my painting table, where I stay 'til six working on whatever project I have scheduled for the day.
- How do you balance burn out and finding the time/desire to paint and model your own projects?
I don't often get burned out. My wife makes fun of me because sometimes six o'clock will come around and I'll just swap out the commission project for my own project and keep going. Sometimes, I'll keep painting through 'til around midnight if the project has me excited enough.
The way I see it, if I want to keep working after hours like that, then I have the best job in the world.
Some days, the projects on my table take a lot of brain space due to complex compositions and such (yeah, John... your titans to that). So after work on those days I'll play a video game to relax. I usually won't force myself to do my own projects, so they're never really work.
- Has there ever been a commission that you have turned down? If so, what were the reasons?
Yes, a number of them actually. Sometimes a person contacts me and wants a really simple paint job and doesn't want to pay very much for it. In those cases, I just quote them for the lowest quality that I'm willing to paint (which isn't that low anymore).
Another issue that's come up is the schedule. I often get requests for cake toppers for people who are getting married in a matter of weeks, and there's just no room in the schedule for it.
- What would be a dream project that you would like to tackle?
Anything at my highest quality, really. I just love to see how far I can push a mini.
- Is there a genre or even a specific model type that you prefer painting? Conversely is there a genre or model type that you dislike?
I really love painting faces and freehand, so the ideal minis let me do at least one or the other.
I think the minis I've liked least have been Battle Fleet Gothic. Those minis are plenty detailed, but in the end, it is hard to find something interesting to do with them.
- Your gaming/zombie themed wedding-cake toppers are wonderfully creative and innovative. Have you been surprised at the response from people regarding that aspect of your painting service? How did the idea originally come about to create such unique cake decorations?
The idea for them actually came from a client. He was looking for something special for his wedding, and at first just wanted me to convert a zombie cake topper for him. In the end, he didn't have much time, and had me paint it as well.
From there, I got a couple more requests for "something like that" and the whole thing just blossomed. I get quite a few of those now, they could be a business all of their own.
- For any would-be clients interested in setting up a commission, especially for important items like wedding cake toppers, how far in advance do you recommend a client contact you?
It varies by time of year, but usually four months is about right, but at least two or three. Because I'm booking my schedule out so far, I can sometimes fit a project into the holes that inevitably appear, but one month is almost never enough time for that.
- Has it ever been difficult to part with a piece of work that you have completed?
Well, whenever I go over to Coolminiornot, the top three pieces in my gallery were all for clients. Still, it is nice to know they're appreciated.
But in the end, I always figure that if I could paint this once, I could do it again. Now I just have to get around to painting that Armorcast Warhound Titan that I have in the back room.
- You have mentioned in the past that your wife is responsible for photographing your work for the website and packing the completed projects for shipment. Is there anything else she does for the studio?
Well, packing and photography are her main duties. Other than that, she organizes things a lot. She's the person who created the contracts and royalty statements for the miniatures lines that we've produced (we've done some of characters from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books, Jim Hines' Goblin Quest books, and Howard Taylor's Schlock Mercenary webcomics).
- As a regular forum browser I notice a rather steady influx of would-be commission painters advertising their services or asking questions about starting up their own painting services. Since you have successfully run your business for a few years now do you have any advice for aspiring painters? What are some of the major pitfalls you would recommend they avoid?
The most important thing you need to be able to do is paint very well and very quickly. Those are both very important, and you can't make it without both.
Keep track of how long projects are taking you and make sure you're hourly wage is making sense to you. If you end up making three dollars an hour, you either need to charge more, or learn to paint faster without dropping the quality.
To contact Drew and set up a commission please visit his website at: http://www.gardenninja.com/commissions/
Drew's line of miniatures based off of Goblin Quest and Schlock Mercenary can be found in his store:http://www.gardenninja.com/shop/
Finally, you can visit his Cool Mini or Not page here.